Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Human Experience

I have been pondering what it means to be human and the role of religion and spirituality in the human journey. I think that we have, over the last 50 years or so tried too hard to deny the human spiritual experience.

I would like to place before you another way of looking at this question. There is an all too frequent tendency in many of us to stand outside and cast stones through the stained glass windows of other people's belief systems. Whilst it is true, for example, that the Catholic church has left itself open to ridicule and contempt as a result of the behaviours of a few, it is important to remember that it is just that - the behaviour of a few. In any human collective there will always be those who abuse their positions. In my own life I have witnessed abuses of power by those who seemed to be more concerned with the visible trappings of their own sense of self importance than they are with the needs of those for whom they had a responsibility and duty of care.

The founder of the Mormon faith recorded the view that
"We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion"

Enough said...

For myself, I find a great deal of value in the words of the sufi mystic Ibn Arabi "the colour of the water is the colour of the receptacle".

In all of the variety of religious experience there are gems that somehow resonate with a part of who we are as humans. Now I have no experimental basis on which to prove this is so, but I suspect that in the deeper parts of our unconscious (perhaps even down in Jungs Collective Unconscious) there is something that resonates with us and, for a moment, can draw us out of the mundane and remind us that our very existence is a miracle. The very fact that we can think about the fact that we think and ponder why the universe is and why, in all the infinite range of potential outcomes that the universe could throw up, it threw up consciousness and for a moment certain experiences can open something in us that senses awe.

For those whose heritage is of the West, if you ever get the opportunity to sit through a Catholic sung High Mass, seize it. And for a moment set aside any preexisting notions and prejudices and just try and sense the connection with the heritage of our western collective unconscious. Feel for a moment the mystery again.

In my own life's journey I have learned that in all spiritual experience there is something that resonates in us. Perhaps it is the shadows of our ancestors as they looked up at the stars from the plains of Africa and first began to wonder what life was about that resonates within us. Have you ever wondered what it was that first evoked that sense of awe. We know that as the jungle receded in Africa, our earliest ancestors had to adapt to life on the open plains. Perhaps (and this is pure conjecture on my part) they one night looked up and saw the stars and actually wondered... or perhaps it was a wondering on what happened when a member of the tribe died. But whatever it was, it opened up in us a sense of wondering, and from wonder to awe and thus the human journey took a significant step forward.

Unfortunately in our post-modern scientific world we have tried to bury this sense of awe. We have dared to suggest that because it could not be measured or quantified that his fundamental part of our human experience should be forever denied. I think that determination to bury so much of the human experience has reached it's crescendo in the attacks on the non quantifiable parts of the human experience embodied in works such as the God Delusion.

Awe and wonder lift us out of the mire of the daily human battle to exist. Awe and wonder transform mere existence into the wonder of life and love places a reason in our hearts to continue the journey.

Whether a certain religous view is right or wrong is irrelevant if within the maze of the religious experience an individual can for a moment sense awe and wonder. This is, in my humble opinion the core of the religious experience.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ritual and the Human Journey

Whilst sitting in a solemn mass I pondered the role of ritual as a marker of significant moments in the human journey.Our ancestors used ritual to mark many things in their lives. The achievment of a goal (perhaps a successful hunt), the marking of life transitions (from child to adult for example) or an important date in the annual cycle of life.

As Christianity achieved a foothold it embraced the concept of ritual and provided rituals within the church that would mark these dates, times and occasions. Eastern religions too embrace, to this day, a series of festivals and observations that are ritual in nature which unite the community.  In our post modern world, sadly, we have all too frequently abandoned the rituals.

We are left with little that marks the passing of significant occasions, except an observance of public holidays that are based on religious festivals that have little meaning for many anymore.

But alongside the ritual markers for significant events are many other rituals that either provide a basis for helping us to get through the daily grind of life or allow us to highlight the things which are important to us. How about the ritual of love between two people? Could there be any ritual more deeply associated with a relationship than the rituals of intimacy? Or what about the ritual of sitting with friends over a good meal? Or just a simple cup of coffee?

So have we abandoned ritual? I think not. Yet we have an almost instinctive suspicion of ritual to mark more significant events. I think there is a desperate need, in the scrabble to find meaning in life, for us to reassert ritual in observance of life's passing journey.

Could I suggest to anyone thinking about the value of ritual to take the time to attend a religous ritual and just to observe. For me, in the western tradition in which I was raised, the pinnacle of this is the Anglo-Catholic high mass. For anyone who has this practiced nearby, there is a deep value to be found in participating in this ritual. For myself there is something that reconnects me with those who have gone before. I can, for a moment, indulge all my senses in a ritual which has its roots in earliest western tradition. I can recommend it regardless of your belief or otherwise in supernatural beings and concepts.